Digital discoveries

All power to the portable: Jed Distler hails to digital ageAll power to the portable: Jed Distler hails to digital age

One of my earliest childhood memories involves my mother bringing her little phonograph out to our backyard, hooked up all the way to the kitchen with and extension cord. Not quite portable music as we know it know, but a start. As an adolescent in the late 1960s I went nuts trying balance LPs and 45s on a small battery operated record player as it sat on my lap during car rides and airplane trips. Cassettes were the answer, and when the Walkman came out, I jumped for joy.  Although it got even better with CDs and my first portable CD player, I hated to switch tapes or discs in midstream when exercising, and always schlepped too many CDs in my bag when I had to travel for work. That’s when I got interested in MP3 technology, and the first players I saw back in 2000.

Just to backtrack, MP3 stands for MPEG Audio Layer III, a standard for audio compression that makes any music file smaller with little or no loss of sound quality. As it happened, my portable CD player could read MP3 files, so with my first Macintosh laptop and iTunes I figured out how to create MP3s and burn them on to CDRs. One disc could hold hours and hours of music. By 2005 I bit the bullet and bought my iPod, and went on a digitising rampage that has yet to run its course.

Operating iTunes on my Macintosh PowerBook enables me to locate, play, and go back and forth between selections (or specific sections within selections) with great speed and efficiency. It makes comparative listening easier than ever, which is crucial for reviewing, if I wish to evaluate Kempff vs Arrau vs Barenboim back to back as quickly as possible. I also compare multiple transfers of historic recordings this way.

When I review a CD, I usually rip the disc to my computer, store the digital files on various external, portable hard drives: one for classical, one for jazz and world music, one for pop, one for lossless, one for spoken and podcasts, and one for my own projects. Eventually I enter relevant title information in a spreadsheet database document that I create with Microsoft Excel. I admit that I’m rather arbitrary about the digital formats and bit rates I use for ripping. I tend to save Apple Lossless or the highest quality 320kbps MP3 for favourite or frequently listened to recordings, and relegate Apple AAC (128kbps) to files I’ll keep mainly for quick reference or an occasional, casual listen. Most of my collection’s out-of-print CDs are backed up as lossless FLAC files. I should add that my music collection and my database are backed up in triplicate. As of this writing, my digital collection (minus backups) totals more or less seven terabytes.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up high quality CDs and SACDS. Far from it. Excellent audio quality and package presentation via graphics and annotations are as important to me now as they were in the vinyl era. In fact, each year for my birthday I treat myself to a non-classical box set that I most likely would not receive for review purposes, such as the complete Fela Kuti, the Grateful Dead’s complete 1972 European tour, or one of Mosaic’s scrupulously and comprehensively produced archival jazz releases. That one can audition such major purchases by clicking on sound samples on line usually factors in to making my purchase decisions.

That said, the ease of downloading and streaming has expanded my classical horizons, with help from numerous live performances uploaded to classical music newsgroups. Internet radio is a godsend in this regard. I’ve also been turned on to an amazingly broad range of jazz, world music, hip-hop and club culture. Friends and colleagues either send me links, or post them on Facebook. Or I’ll just do a Google search on, say 'long Finnish DJ sets', and see what happens. I also follow podcasts of certain American and European news and music shows in order to keep up with current events and emerging artists.

Ardent internet music fans also know about sites run by dedicated fans who upload digital files of out-of-print LPs or CDs, although quality control varies. Fortunately, major labels are getting the hint, and duly offering 'legit' digital downloads of back catalogue for sale, and that’s almost as good as having the physical CD in hand. This particularly proves useful when I want to access an out-of-print comparison that I don’t own. For example, I recently reviewed Maria Paz Santibañez’s recording of Maurice Ohana’s Piano Etudes issued on the small Spanish label La Mà de Guido. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search that came up with an earlier recording featuring pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on the equally obscure Harmonic label, that included two additional etudes for piano and percussion that Ms Santibañez omitted.

The physical disc was out-of-print, yet I had no trouble downloading reasonably priced MP3 files from Amazon.com. In addition, I’m glad to see classical organisations emulate the so-called 'jam band' paradigm by offering high quality downloads of live concerts, plus various options in regard to format and annotations. Think of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony cycle with Christoph Eschenbach, the same orchestra’s resplendent Bruckner Fifth led by Wolfgang Sawallisch, or Lorin Maazel’s idiosyncratic yet often thrilling download-only New York Philharmonic Mahler cycle.

Yet I admit that I’m still old enough to miss record stores. While the large music chain brick and mortar classical department may have gone the way of the dodo, smaller boutique shops and second-hand emporiums still offer a more intimate, more communal way to shop for music, where the human factor remains first and foremost, as it should. I still see myself at New York’s J&R Music World Classical Department in September of 1982, as the clerk spun Glenn Gould’s new digitally recorded LP of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the store turntable. I and my fellow shoppers stood and listened in rapt silence. Of course I bought a copy, not knowing, of course, that within a week Gould would be dead. The sound of breaking shrink wrap always gave me a momentary rush that I’ve never experienced when the computer beeps ‘Your download is complete’.

How has downloading and online music changed your approach to classical music? Or, like, Jeremy Nicholas in a parallel piece, perhaps you're still wondering what to do with your collection of 78s? Why not let us know in the Gramophone Forum.

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